Chapter 16: After the Storm
The carrier-boy entered into a cave hidden behind some thick brush and Vizel smiled. Finally, all his patience was about to pay off. Inside there, he couldn’t just fly away when things got bad. Vizel knew that if he just followed him long enough, eventually he would be cornered.
It was about time, too. Patience wasn’t Vizel’s strong point. He had barely been able to control himself this long. It was frustrating that, after all this time, he wasn’t allowed to kill the boy. But certainly he could have his fun bloodying the carrier first.
He stepped out in from his concealment, a broad smile on his face, eager to get started –
A splitting pain in his head stopped him in his tracks. It was a familiar feeling, one which he dreaded at the best of times. Now was certainly not a good time.
“Not now,” he moaned out loud. “Not now not now not now not now! I’m so close!”
He gripped his head and shook violently, desperately trying to hold on. His vision blurred, nausea threatened to overwhelm him, his body quaked. The world seemed to spin around him and he let out a bestial roar.
Kanos peeked out of the cave to investigate the source of the screaming he had heard. He found a young man, bundled up in a black hoodie, stumbling and shaking.
“You okay, buddy?” Kanos asked, cautiously approaching the stranger. He wanted to help, but his history with less than friendly taught him to be careful.
The man looked up at him with deep blue eyes filled with fear and confusion. He pushed back his hood, revealing a head full of dirty blond hair, and ran a hand over his face, wincing as his fingers traced fresh cuts on his cheek, barely scabbed over.
“Where am I?” he asked, voice unsteady. “Who are you?”
“I am Kanos. Nice to meet you! What’s your name?”
“Wencent.” He looked around the unfamiliar forest surrounding him. “I don’t … I don’t know how I got here. I’m sorry to ask, but can you help me?”
“Of course!” Kanos grabbed the stranger by the arm and began dragging him towards the cave. “Boy, what a day, meeting so many friendly people! I have some stuff in here that will help with those cuts. You hungry? I was about to eat.”
Humbled by the boy’s generosity, Wencent allowed himself to be pulled along. “Thank you, Kanos. I will repay you, I promise.”
Wencent meant it, too. But someone else, someone silenced for the moment but not forever, strongly disagreed.
Everything was quiet for a while, a somber silence weighing heavy on the still air. Then the students of Ryu needed to move on to more pressing concerning, leaving Ullen alone to his grief.
One of those concerns was at the top of Ai’s mind as she went to confront Sam inside the farmhouse. He was drinking another one of those weird energy drinks while retreading the battle with Peter.
“You went at her with a bat?” Sam asked with a chuckle. “You’re crazy, Nils. I wish had been conscious to see it.”
“Not just any bat,” Peter corrected. “I made one out of a tree.”
“Aren’t all wooden bats technically made out of trees?”
Peter hefted his specially channeled bat. “Not like this one.”
Sam tried to take the bat to see what the big deal was. He went to the ground as he was met with the weight of the entire tree in his hands. Peter smiled smugly as he easily lifted the bat.
“Yeah, well …” Sam said as he embarrassingly dusted himself off. “I shot a stream of fireballs.”
“I saw. You looked cool, until you face-planted.”
Their jovial attitude was broken when Ai imposed herself between them. She gave Sam a look like she was about to bring down the fires of hell upon him.
“Sam.” Ai’s voice was icy. “Why did your mother have the address for our place?”
He was about to plead ignorance when he remembered the energy drink in his hands. It gave him a faint recollection of a moment of weakness several weeks ago, when he was crashing from an energy drink binge, he place a call to his mom. The memory wasn’t clear, but he was pretty certain he had given her the address. “Oops.”
“Oops,” Ai repeated. “Is that all you have to say? We have rules, you were aware of them. We all could have been killed. What if more than one of The Dark God’s followers had discovered this place? I would have died. Your friend would have died. You would have been captured, your fragment would have been taken, and you would have died. But all you have to say is, ‘oops’?”
Sam seemed sufficiently ashamed. “I … I really fucked up, okay? I fucked up real bad. I wasn’t thinking … I was tired and my brain wasn’t working … I’m sorry, alright?”
Ai stared down Sam, trying to decide whether he needed to be scolded further. Sam was looking absolutely distraught, as if the possible consequences of his actions were just now hitting him. She decided to go a little lighter on him as it was unlikely a mistake he would make again. Still, there was more that she needed to say.
She turned to Peter. “I need to have a private talk with Sam. Why don’t you go outside and see if you can help?”
Peter gave his friend an apologetic shrug. “Good luck, Fariman.”
Once they were alone, Ai got right to it. “Have you ever had violent tendencies, Sam?”
“What?” The sudden change of topic snapped Sam out of his misery.
“Have you ever had a violent outburst, say against one of your classmates at school? Are you prone to fits of rage, shouting?”
“What? No!” Why was she even asking that? “I mean, I’ve yelled at video games sometimes, but not people. Hell, my gym teacher used to call me ‘meek,’ said I had no fight in me.”
Ai leaned in and picked at his shirt. The “+2 Charisma” graphic and much of the neckline had been badly singed by his own flames. “That didn’t seem ‘meek’ to me. What happened out there?”
Sam was too embarrassed by her sudden closeness to properly analyze the question. “I channeled fire. You saw that.”
“And the attitude?”
“What?” Only when he stopped to think about it did he realize how out-of-character he had behaved. “Well, when I jumped in front of you … I think I was just really angry. But before that …” He remembered his first attack against Aer, the wildness behind it, the feeling over unstoppable power that drove him, the desire to turn his opponent to cinders. It was unlike anything he had ever felt before. “I don’t know. It was weird. Like I was losing control.”
He expected to be scolded some more, but Ai nodded understandingly. “I thought as much. Here’s the thing about Elements: while we try to control them, they try to control us. For most, it’s a minor thing, a small influence. For people with a strong connection to their elements, it’s much more pronounced, and when they channel, it can threaten to overwhelm them.”
Sam thought through the implications of what she was saying. “Are you saying being a Fire Element makes me violent?”
“It can. If you are not careful. The Fire Element pushes its users to acting impulsively, rashly. Giving into the baser instincts. That very often includes violent urges, but it can just as well be an impulsive decision made without thinking. Say, giving the location to where you are hiding to your mother despite being warned against it?”
“That was a stupid decision,” Sam admitted again, “but I think that was just … regular stupidity.”
Ai looked thoughtful. “It can be tough to tell. The influences can be subtle. For example, the Light Element makes its users more determined and strong-willed, so when Arthur gets all stubborn it’s hard to tell whether that’s him or his Element’s influence on him.”
“So what should I do?” Sam’s concern was genuine. The idea of losing control again filled him with fear, only slightly diffused by the closeness of Ai’s presence.
“We will have observe your training closely. The focus will be on control over power. You must master the Fire before it masters you.”
The idea of closely working with Ai sat well with Sam. “Whatever you think is best.”
She gave him a faint smile. “But if you mess up again, we’re going to bind you and lock you up until all this is over.”
Sam could not tell if she was joking.
Ai instructed Sam to get some rest and then rejoined the others outside. Peter and Marco were moving the remains of Peter’s truck out of the field, Peter loudly complaining about already losing his first vehicle. Ullen was wrapping Aer’s body in a method Ai suspected was to allow him to take her through the void. Arthur just stood in the middle of the field, near the crater she had made during the fight.
“You going to let Peter and Marco do everything?” she asked him. “There’s a lot that needs to be done if we’re going to get this place in order. Or at least cover up enough of the damages that nosy neighbors don’t ask any questions.” Arthur didn’t respond. “If you’re tired, go rest. This can wait til morning.”
Arthur had a distant stare. “You heard what Aer said? Right before she died? About Adaghast’s voice in her head? How she couldn’t control it? What if …”
“Don’t, Arty,” Ai warned.
“But what if the others are also like that?” Arthur asked anyway. “What if The Dark God is controlling people, making it impossible for them to resist him? It’s one thing to fight someone who is willingly doing evil, it is another hurt someone who has no choice.”
“You can’t let yourself go down this path. The moment you start treating our enemies as victims, the moment you hold back against them, you will die. Whatever the reason, they are the enemy. They want to hurt people, kill them, not just you but innocent people who can’t defend themselves.”
Arthur still seemed unconvinced. He was so absorbed in his personal turmoil that he didn’t notice Ullen come up beside him.
“There’s nothing that can be done about it,” Ullen said, somberly. “Adaghast will claim even more victims if he is allowed to regain his power. Even if his followers aren’t working for him willingly, it is better to stop them. Better for us …” He paused and looked back to the body of his student. “And better for them. Better than to leave them like that.”
It made a depressing amount of sense. Arthur thought of what he would want if he was somehow corrupted and forced to do the Dark God’s will. He certainly wouldn’t want to be allowed to hurt any of his friends. And he definitely wouldn’t want to hurt any innocents. It would be a better if they stopped him by any means necessary.
“The Dark God,” he said with a seething anger. “Adaghast. He’s the one responsible. For all of it.”
“We will stop him.” Ai’s voice made it sound not like a probability but an eventuality.
The three Light Elements stood in the silence of camaraderie, an unspoken pact that they were in this together, bound by a common enemy.
“Is Ryu going to be alright?” Arthur said to finally break the silence. Ai had briefly recounted the battle to him, and Ryu’s plight, but he had not yet had a moment to check on him. He rebuked himself for being so self-involved.
Ai’s normally unreadable face showed her worry clearly. “It’s hard to be sure. Peter believes so, and now that he’s able to grasp his element he can tell better than I.”
“Ah, that old goat’s not going anywhere,” Ullen reassured them. “He’s too damn stubborn to let something little like a weak heart bring him down for good. Maybe if the Dark God and all his followers showed up, maybe, just maybe, they would have a chance. Short of that, he’ll be fine.”
“How do you know Ryu, again?” Ai asked.
A small smile managed to break through Ullen’s somberness. “Shortly after I was … ‘persuaded’ to join the ECT, one of my first assignments was to bring him in for questioning. Like you, he had a habit of doing what he thought was right without much concern for the consequences. We found we had a lot in common. Ended up fighting alongside him on more than one occasion against some particularly nasty fellows. Haven’t seen him since the day he decided to take an apprentice, though.” He scratched at his chin, wistfully. “Surprised the hell out of me when he did. He had always been adamant that he would never take a student. Now look at him, he’s got a whole school. Guess age changes a person.”
Arthur had trouble imagining Ryu as anything other than an instructor figure. It was hard to picture him as someone who didn’t actually want students.
There was a crashing noise from the other edge of the field, followed by swearing.
“I said ‘gently push it’!” Peter yelled, waving his arms frantically towards his truck, which was now upside down at the bottom of a small incline. “Oh man! Well, there goes literally any hopes of repair!”
“Hey guys!” Arthur called over. “Call it a day. We’ve all been through a lot. Let’s get some food and some sleep, tackle this stuff in the morning.” He turned to Ullen. “I know you have to deal with … well, you’re welcome to eat with us.”
“I appreciate it. Could really use the fuel for the trip through the void. These old bones get tired quicker than than they used to.”
As they made their way inside, Arthur took a moment to really take in the damage that was done here. The farm would never be the same.
“Remind me to never doubt your senses again, Ai,” he commented. “If you hadn’t detected Aer and stayed behind, who knows what would have happened?”
The comment caused Ai to pause. There had been something else tickling her senses, so faint she would have overlooked it if Arthur hadn’t mentioned it. It was different than Aer, more subtle.
Whatever it was, it was gone now. It was probably just an animal, now that she thought about it. It would not due anyone any good if she became paranoid.
In the wooded area beyond the farm, a stealthy figure carefully returned to his place of concealment, hiding both his self and his presence. He had gotten too close the farm and nearly given himself away.
His instructions had been clear: only interfere in the most dire of circumstances, because once he revealed himself he would not be able to stay. The battle from the Wind Element had nearly driven him from hiding; more than once it had seemed he would need to get involved and he had crept closer to the farm to do just that. Fortunately, everything had managed to work itself out without him in the end.
Now he could return to watching and waiting. There was no rush.
He was a very patient man. As anyone who had lived many centuries would be.